Bold thinking required at I-90 Allston interchange

Once again, we must move on from what’s easy

SOMETIME IN THE mid-1950s, my mother packed the three of us into our black ’52 Plymouth and drove us onto the then-brand-new Southeast Expressway. She probably took us up the ramp at Neponset Circle, got off in South Boston, and drove us to L Street beach. I remember her telling us that this was the way we could now get to visit our favorite aunt – Auntie Jo – in Medford, and that it would now take less time to do so.

Elevated highways were thought of as progress in the 1950s and in the 1960s. Build everything more cheaply above the ground. Don’t worry about the consequences.

It is not surprising that, when the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension into Boston was proposed, it was viewed as an extraordinary boost to the regional economy; building it over the rail yards in Allston was the only alternative that was likely considered. Once again, that was the 1960s.

In the early 1970s, I was one of many who joined a broad-ranged coalition that defeated the proposal to build an elevated highway almost from Massachusetts Avenue to Route 128 – the so-called Southwest Expressway. (When I say broad-ranged, it included Mel King and others on the left as well as ladies from Milton, who were driven to meetings in a black car by a chauffeur. One was so old that I recall her using an ear trumpet to help herself hear.)

To say the battle against the expressway sometimes proved colorful would be an understatement. At one point, I was threatened by large men in trucks who were concerned that I would be taking away their livelihood if they could not build a road. I was alone when I had that encounter. I weighed about 135 pounds. It was a quite an experience!

Thankfully, wiser heads, including Gov. Frank Sargent (pressured by Mayor White, among others) defeated that proposal.

The proposed roadway would have cut a gash through Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Hyde Park, and Readville. Having lived in Jamaica Plain for over 30 years, I question what the neighborhood would be like today had we been bisected by an elevated highway. Thankfully, we were not. Instead, we have an MBTA rapid transit line and commuter rail trains running subsurface, and Jamaica Plain has prospered (perhaps prospered a bit too much, but that’s another article).

It is often easy for people in public life to take the easy way out. It would have been easy in the early 1970s to vote against renovating Quincy Market, since that kind of urban reclamation and repurposing was a novel idea, but doing so was a great step forward for Boston. I was one of six city councilors who voted for the project, which eked through with no votes to spare.

A decade or so later, I began working with Norman Leventhal and others to found the Artery Business Committee, which started working hard to secure funding to submerge the elevated Central Artery highway running through downtown Boston. Just as many said the Quincy Market makeover would never happen, many believed that a subsurface highway through downtown Boston would never be done, and yet it was and Boston is the far better place because of it.

That brings us to 2020 and the Allston I-90 interchange of the Massachusetts Turnpike, where state transportation officials are in the midst of determining the best plan for a major remake of the highway and adjacent transportation infrastructure.

The one area where no one can seem to agree is the so-called throat, a narrow area between Boston University and the Charles River that houses a crumbling elevated Turnpike viaduct, Soldiers Field Road, and commuter rail tracks. Three proposals are currently on the table – one that would rebuild the infrastructure in that area pretty much as is, one that would put the Turnpike at ground level and elevate Soldiers Field Road, and one that would put all of the elements at ground level. The latter two proposals would probably have some impact on the Charles River, at least during construction.

My decades of involvement in and observation of key transportation and development decisions in Greater Boston lead me to one overarching conclusion about the project: Let’s not be lazy and boring and yield to a design that says 1960s all over it. Let’s create a western access point to our city of which we can be proud.

An at-grade design would result in a functioning highway system, a transit corridor, a renewed waterfront for the Charles River, more connectivity to the river, and development opportunities surrounding and above West Station.

It took bold thinking in the 1970s to defeat the proposed elevated Southwest Expressway. It took bold thinking in the 1980s and 1990s to bring about the depressed Central Artery. It will take bold thinking to build an I-90 corridor which none of us will ever regret and because of which our children and grandchildren will be able to secure access to the Charles River.

In the 81 days during which he ran for president in 1968, Robert Kennedy would end many speeches with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

Meet the Author

Is that not a worthy guiding principle as the Commonwealth, and all of us who are stakeholders, contemplate the future of I-90 in Allston?   

Lawrence S. DiCara is a Boston attorney and former Boston city councilor.